So what do I think about Shanghai? I won’t lie, I have mixed feelings. On one hand, it has arresting views of skyscrapers, impressive architecture, excellent spa treatments, great luxury shopping (there are as many Gucci shops as there are Starbucks, I kid you not), and a food scene to match. It is energetic, diverse, and oozing with life. On the other, it is chaotic (with a population of more than 23 million, it’s not surprising), unorganized, loud and less tourist-friendly. I hate to compare cities as much as the next person, however we both left underwhelmed unlike our trip to Hong Kong (this is totally subjective, and I do realize my opinion might differ from that of other travelers). Having said that, we enjoyed our three days in Shanghai (which, in my opinion, was enough to get a solid overview of the city’s main sights at a relaxed pace) and made a few unforgettable memories. As always, I compiled a list of all the touristy highlights of this expansive city to hopefully inspire and help you plan your trip.
Top 10 Things to See and Do in Shanghai
Stroll along The Bund Promenade
Perhaps one of the most striking spots in the city is The Bund Wai Tan waterfront along the Huang Pu River with famous view of the Shanghai skyline. You can see the futuristic Oriental Pearl TV Tower, The Shanghai Tower – the world’s second tallest building, that reminded me of a twizzler shooting towards the sky – and the cutting edge Jin Mao Tower all liked up beautifully on the other (Pudong) side of the river. The Bund itself is home to stately old buildings that give a taste of 1920s Shanghai. I’d recommend taking a stroll along the promenade during the day because it is mostly deserted, and taking a cruise at night because promenade gets incredibly crowded as soon as the dazzling night lights turn on. Despite vigorous research, I couldn’t find a way to purchase cruise tickets online in advance (everything seemed to be in Chinese), but you can grab your tickets at numerous ticket booths along the promenade during the day time. Alternatively, you can book a fancier VIP luxury cruise like this.
Explore Pudong & Get Bird’s View of Shanghai
Hop on a metro, taxi or ferry to get on the other side of the river and explore the Pudong and The Lujiazui areas dense with the skyscrapers, entertainment centers and restaurants. It’s also the best place to climb one of the observation decks: The Shanghai Tower (currently the tallest in the world located on the 120th floor), The Oriental Pearl Tower or the 100th floor of Shanghai IFC, which we did. The view was truly breathtaking, and I liked an option of admiring the unique architectural design of The Pearl Tower instead of being in it. Needless to say, The Pearl Tower itself is worth a visit. You will have a chance to travel at the rate of seven meters per second on double-decker elevators that can hold up to fifty people. Different spheres house various entertainment facilities like a recreational palace, the Municipal History Museum, a futuristic space city, a fabulous sightseeing hall, a science fantasy city, a hotel and a revolving restaurant at the top sphere! The highest observatory deck is called the Space Module, which stands at 350 meters. You can stand on the platform made of transparent glass and enjoy a stunning panoramic view of the city.
Wander through Yu Yuan Gardens and Bazaar
This was one of my personal favorite sights in Shanghai despite being swarmed by tourists even at 0900 a.m.! Cheng Huang Miao is a pedestrian area full of little alleyways loaded with classical Chinese architecture, fishmongers and local markets. It is a place which will teleport you to medieval China (granted you ignore all the 21st century western brands). You get a ton of shops with handmade crafts, fake knock off stuff, folk art and other knick-knacks. I got myself a few beautiful silk scarves that I cannot wait to wear. Once you wade through the crowded alleyways, head inside the picturesque Yu Gardens (you need to buy a ticket) which is a maze of winding passages, tea houses and pavilions, all with an alluring feel of the yesteryear – a pure photographer’s dream. It boasts a long history, being created in 1559 and having undergone the Opium War, Taiping Rebellion and World War. It’s no wonder the Chinese government officially declared Yu Yuan gardens as a national monument. If you have time, want to avoid the crowds and stray off the tourist grid, I’d recommend checking out 300-year-old Zuibai Chi as well, which is known to be another of Shanghai’s five classical gardens. It is quite common to eat in one of the restaurants or enjoy afternoon tea in the tea houses after the tour of the garden. Although, we deemed those to be quite touristy and headed for lunch to Hakkasan on The Bund instead.
Explore Former French Concession: Xi Tian Di & Tian Zi Fang
I loved exploring the old as well as the new parts of Shanghai and the former French Concession seems to be a mélange of both. This low-rise, villa-lined leafy neighborhood was once known as the Paris of the East. It’s warren of prettified traditional alleyways (longtang) have been remodeled and geared to shopping, dining and entertainment. We spent one afternoon strolling through Xintiandi area where traditional shikumen houses have been renovated and turned into stylish premises that house restaurants, cafes, boutiques and galleries. The layout of the area suggests a flavor of yesteryear (alas quite modernized) and is best for enjoying a summer evening over drinks or a meal. Tiánzǐfáng is based on the similar idea, but delivers a more lived-in charm and vibrancy. You’ll feel a more bohemian vibe among its network of design studios, cafes, bars and boutiques.
Shopping Along Nanjing Road
For a shopping marathon, head straight to the pedestrian Nanjing Road which is a 3.4 miles long stretch lined up with tons of shopping malls and restaurants. Anything and everything to encourage you empty your wallet (including pickpockets, so be careful!).
Take a Break at People’s Square
For a cultural [shock] experience head to People’s Square. People’s Square is a large public square and the site of Shanghai’s municipal government building. It’s a great mix between beautiful park and architectural showcase. On the weekends though, this place turns into a “coupling marketplace”, where Chinese parents try to find spouses for their unmarried children. They do this by putting up their “bio” on a piece of paper that is attached to an umbrella.
Visit Jing’an Temple
We stayed at Hilton Shanghai which is right next to Jing’an Temple, which temple has a history of more than 780 years. It is a remarkable complex to look at, nestled right in the midst of the modern skyscrapers. While it is not an original temple and has been completely reconstructed it was interesting to wander through its numerous halls and take in the tranquil atmosphere.
Take a Food Tour of Shanghai
One thing we didn’t get to do is see the behind-the-scenes of the city. There was not enough time to explore the narrow alleyways and stop by the mom-and-pop shops. Honestly, we wouldn’t even know where to look without a help of the guide. That’s why I’d highly recommend taking an organized food tour.
Tour Shanghai Museum or Museum of Science and Technology
Besides sightseeing Shanghai offers a wide array of rewarding cultural explorations via numerous museums. Should you have enough time checking out Shanghai Museum, one of the top museums in the country which houses masterpieces of Chinese art that date back as far as the Neolithic period. Alternatively, Shanghai Science and Technology Museum offers a fascinating insight into the world of nifty robots, IMAX films and stuffed tigers pouncing on prey. The four-story complex also houses a faux rain forest and jungle gyms. Plus its building is as visually appealing as the work it displays.
Take a Day Trip to Zhouzhuang Canal Town
To immerse in the world of historic China, I’d highly recommend you take a day trip to one of the water villages located outside Shanghai (sadly, we didn’t manage to make it happen). One of the most popular ones is over 500-years-old Zhouzhuang water village, with picturesque bridges and canals which earned it a nickname of Venice of Asia. It was an important town for local trade, shipping goods in and out of its man-made canals to the river. Its main street is lined with quaint shops and restaurants serving local favorites. You can stroll the maze of atmospheric paths and bridges, and take a boat ride to view the charming residences of this nicely-preserved water village. Other popular villages are Zhu Jia Jiao, Tongli, Nanxun and Xitang. I’d recommend to take an organized tour here, for detailed information check out this website.
Top Restaurant Recommendations in Shanghai
Naturally, we didn’t have time to make even a tiny dent on the local food scene in three days, but based on the places we checked out and my vigorous research, I can recommend the following restaurants in Shanghai:
Dim sum: Hakkasan, Din Tai Fung, Jia Jia Tang Bao, Yang’s Dumplings, Rui Fu Yuan.
Western: The Commune Social, Mr. and Mrs. Bund
Brunch: Table No.1, Jean George
Fine Dining: 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo
General Shanghai Travel Tips
- Wifi: public wifi is very scare. You can buy a local sim card or pocket wifi right at the baggage claim area of the Shanghai Airport upon arrival. That way you’ll have data all the time. I also downloaded VPN Unlimited app which granted e uninterrupted access to Google and all social media handles. Sadly (blessing in disguise), it didn’t work as efficiently in Beijing.
- Safety: while Shanghai is generally considered quite safe, you should always pay attention to your belongings and remain aware of your surroundings.
- Tipping: tipping isn’t part of Chinese culture and can be considered rude. It doesn’t apply to taxi rides. While you are expected to pay the exact amount shown on the meter, taxi drivers enthusiastically accepted out tips.
- Transportation: you can travel around the city on the metro or by taxi. The latter is so cheap we took full advantage of it. Please make sure to use hotel taxis, they are required to use meters. We once caught a cab in the street and the driver didn’t use the meter, and charged three times more than we were supposed to pay! Also, taxi drivers do not speak English so make sure to have a name of the place in Chinese to explain where you are heading. Also, make sure to ask your hotel for a card with its address and name in Chinese.
I also found this YoutTube guide which gives lots of useful Shanghai travel tips:
Have you been to Shanghai? What were your favorite places or things to do?
Let me know in the comments!
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